Wed, 29 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Cut Him Some Slack: How Boris Johnson Is Losing Control Without Calming Former Comms Chief

The much-admired James Slack has left Downing Stret to return to journalism (Alamy)

9 min read

Westminster insiders say that Boris Johnson’s decision to personally brief newspaper editors and make angry attacks from the despatch box this week point to a Prime Minister who is losing control as well as his cool.

They point to the loss of a number of longstanding advisors from Number 10, but especially the departure of Downing Street communications director James Slack, arguing it has contributed to the PM’s worst week of headlines since the depths of the pandemic.

Variously described as a “razor sharp operator”, a “consummate pro” and someone who understood the media and how to shape coverage the way his bosses wanted, the former Daily Mail political editor announced he was heading back to journalism last month to be deputy editor at The Sun.

An-ex Number 10 aide who worked alongside Slack described him as a “a grown up in the room”, and said he “was brilliant and will be hugely missed there”.

But without him, according to one veteran political editor, the operation mirrors Johnson himself: “chaotic and optimistic”.

His departure was the latest in a line of senior figures leaving Downing Street, many of whom are veterans from Johnson’s City Hall and Vote Leave days, replaced by allies of Michael Gove and Johnson’s fiancée  Carrie Symonds.

The most explosive exit came last November, when chief adviser Dominic Cummings walked out from behind the black Number 10 door, cardboard box in hand, followed by close ally and Downing Street director of communications Lee Cain, supposedly after losing a power struggle with Symonds over the hiring of incoming press secretary Allegra Stratton for a role that lasted just a few months.

Among all of the wild briefings at the time about “Dom”, “Lee”, “Carrie” and “Allegra” - the name “James” was rarely heard. Slack stayed out of the air war, and instead stepped up from being the PM’s official spokesperson, known as ‘PMOS’, to become Cain’s replacement as director of comms.

It was seen as a canny move, bringing in a calm head to replace the more confrontational and abrasive regime before it, with Slack having won the trust of first Theresa May and then Johnson in the role fronting up at the daily briefings for lobby journalists.

Slack used to occasionally tease reporters at the end of those meetings, pointing to his heavily tabulated red folder and saying “there’s so much in here you never ask me about”.

He was gently mocking the journalists for only focusing on topics only of interest to the “Westminster bubble”, when there was so much they could dig into, but the fact his folder was so thick was because he’d earned the right to discuss a wide range of briefs on any given day.

He is described by former lobby colleagues as still having a “a hack’s brain”, an ex-political editor explaining: “He had that rare ability to convince you that you were getting a little bit more even often as he told you precisely what he wanted you to write.

“I suspect his real value to May and Johnson was his ability to read where stories were heading and shape as best he could coverage. 

“He was slow to anger, calm, rational and alive to the absurdities of modern political life.”

Another former lobby journalist said: “He was absolutely unflappable, across his brief and, crucially, willing to help the lobby where he could. 

“It's difficult to see him allowing the PM to personally brief newspaper editors about Dominic Cummings, if that is what happened. 

“I think he would have strongly advised him not to do it and, given his wealth of experience, what he said would have been taken on board."

But instead of being there to caution the PM against calling editors himself, Slack’s new employer was on the receiving end of that briefing last Wednesday, sparking a new war of words with Cummings.

Slack, resolutely loyal long after he is required to be, has not made any public comment about his time in Number 10, turning down media requests and “taking a vow of silence”. Friends say it was always his intention to go back to journalism and after “four extremely long years” it was simply that the right job came along.

The role he has left behind has been filled by another former Daily Mail journalist, Jack Doyle, who is stepping up from the role of press secretary.

Described as having “very solid judgment” and a Slack-esque “ability to shape a message under pressure”, the scale of the challenge he faces was made clear as soon as papers refused to back off on the story about Johnson’s alleged “bodies pile high” comment regarding a third lockdown. Despite the Prime Minister’s denials, outlets began to report that he’d said it as a fact.

“It's wild that [Laura] Kuenssburg turned against them, this is exactly the sort of stuff she gets criticised for not doing,” one former aide said, after the BBC’s political editor was among those to put more faith in their sources than the PM and Downing Street.

Veteran Labour operator Damian McBride tweeted this week: “Who is Johnson's Sally Morgan, Sue Nye or Kate Fall? Who is his Charlie Falconer, Ed Balls or George Osborne? 

“Where are the senior counsellors who have been with him for years, who he respects, trusts and listens to, and who know how to speak to him?”

The answer is hard to find. The PM brings few people into his inner circle, and many of the most senior  have now departed - like longtime adviser Will Walden and “Steady Eddie” Lord Lister from his time as Mayor of London.

Others who served in his leadership campaign and then followed him into Number 10, like former press secretary Rob Oxley and his deputy Lucia Hodgson, as well as head of broadcast Damon Poole, have all moved to different departments or the private sector.

There are still people like Ben Gascoigne in his orbit, who was a special adviser and is now political secretary, while policy unit head Munira Mirza’s relationship with Johnson goes back more than a decade.

But as one former SpAd points out, it’s important to have advisers who can tell their boss “you’re being an idiot,” and ask: “Why are you doing this?”

They cautioned against reading too much into the departure of one person, but questioned if Johnson still has someone who can say “that’s a fucking stupid idea why would you do that,” and if so, whether he would listen, adding: “It's why Lee [Cain] was so effective, because he was one of the people who would say to the PM, 'that's stupid, don't do that'. 

“And the question is whether he still has someone like that around.”

There are those who defend Johnson’s actions, saying he was the one provoked by Cummings, not the other way around, one ex-SpAd saying he was within his rights to tell newspapers: that if they want to “maintain good lines of communication” they should “stop printing these things because they're unsubstantiated.”

And allies of Number 10 also point to the way they dealt with the controversial European Super League earlier this month as an example of its ability to run a good comms strategy. They responded quickly to the announcement of a potential breakaway football competition with a strong message that chimed with public opinion, and the pressure exerted by the PM and senior ministers helped see the project off within 48 hours.

But there is anger among Tory MPs that the row over leaks and the saga of who paid for the renovations has overshadowed the run-up to the local elections, where there is a huge amount at stake at a regional and national level, as well a crucial race in Hartlepool.

On the flat issue one member of the 2019 intake puts it bluntly: "It doesn't look like there's anything there so I don’t see why they aren’t just putting the facts out.”

A senior Conservative admitted there had been a “comms failure”, but said the blame ought to lie with the PM and the party figures involved, not the government’s communications team.

“There is some frustration that they didn't get on top of it, but what could they have said?” they asked.

“They can only take direction from what they were told to say. If the Prime Minister says there is nothing to see here, what are they supposed to say?”

They added: “Has it been a failure because the comms team is incompetent, or because the message was always going to be tricky?”

But there is also hope the local elections on Thursday will be a “firebreak” on these stories, especially if the Tories have a good night.

“After 10 days on the front pages of stuff about ‘cash for curtains’ and the fact it hasn't really been cutting through into the electorate will show the public doesn't really care about this stuff too much”, one advisor suggested.

“The average voter thinks all politicians are corrupt, even though that’s unfair, but it’s why when they see these stories it doesn't change minds,” they added.

“If you can find me the voter who is going to say, ‘you know what I voted for Boris Johnson back in 2019 because I thought he was full of integrity and honesty’, and who's now suddenly saying ‘you know what he's completely confounded my expectations of him’, I think it’s unlikely.”

One MP said their office had received 1,250 emails about Cummings and his trip to Barnard Castle, and up to now it has had just eight about the PM’s flat.

But the issue is certainly not going away after the Electoral Commission announced a formal investigation is proceeding, plus there is a potential inquiry by the Standards Commissioner in Parliament too.

After a PMQs where Johnson reacted angrily to being labelled “Major Sleaze”, there will need to be a return to cooler heads in Number 10 to get through the next few weeks before Cummings returns centre stage at a select committee into the pandemic.

But one former Number 10 aide said that might not be the plan, saying the ex-advisor - who masterminded Vote Leave’s “Take Back Control” slogan - has been on the end of a “classic old Vote Leave tactic”.

“If you're losing on something then have a fight on something,” they explained.

“It's better for the narrative to be you having a fight about something rather than you basically being hammered. Making it about a fight between politicians, which everyone expects anyway, is more helpful because it masks some of the more substantive stuff.”

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